Sandoval and Nevada Native leaders confront issue of human remains stored at UNR, begin working toward returning them home

For decades, Native American remains have been stored at the state’s flagship university, with only some returned to their homelands and little consultation with Indigenous leaders about the fate of the others.

But over the past few months, after a tribal member brought the issue to a Nevada Indian Commission meeting last year, the university has taken greater steps to correct the historic injustice. 

Nevada tribal leaders and community members have been processing the news of human remains at UNR and working with UNR officials on the issue as outrage has spilled over across the U.S. and Canada over the way institutions and governments have treated Indigenous communities. 

Last month, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico, announced a full review of federal boarding schools, and Native people across the country are still reacting to the news that investigators discovered hundreds of bodies at former boarding schools in Canada run by the Catholic Church. 

At a two-hour meeting last week, tribal leaders and historic preservation officers joined UNR President Brian Sandoval and representatives from the anthropology department regarding various collections of Native American remains housed in the university. 

Leaders of Nevada tribes and UNR officials met last week to discuss repatriation efforts. Photo courtesy of Amber Torres.

“This is just long overdue,” said Walker River Paiute Tribe Chairman Amber Torres, who attended the meeting. “Our people need to be put back in the earth in a timely manner so they can be at peace.” 

Various summaries of findings obtained by The Nevada Independent through a public records request identify fragments of bones to partially or nearly complete skeletal remains from across the state housed mostly in the Research Museum of the Department of Anthropology, along with cultural artifacts such as moccasins and basket remnants.

Some human remains and cultural items were discovered by Nevadans in the 1990s and were donated to the university, while others were excavated and taken by archaeologists who taught anthropology and archaeology classes at UNR. 

According to the summaries, the materials are placed on acid-free tissue paper in a metal drawer for “inventory and storage purposes.” The human remains are kept in polymer bags to prevent damage. 

A couple of the collections are labeled as “mystery assemblage,” and the summaries indicate that when found during inventory protocol in 1994 and 1995, UNR professors had “no recollection of the unique artifacts or skeletal material.” 

While it is unclear why the university has housed the human remains and cultural artifacts for decades, institutions have historically kept Native American remains in order to study them. 

Debra Moddelmog, the dean of the UNR Liberal Arts College, told The Nevada Independent in an email on Tuesday that the university has in the past worked with tribes to repatriate human remains that belong to them, though she didn’t say when or how often that has happened in the last 20 years or how many human remains have been returned. 

“Although we have repatriated a number of Ancestors and sacred items to Tribal Nations, we are committed to improving the process to make it more consistent,” Moddelmog said. “COVID slowed the current process of repatriation, but we are now re-commencing with this process.” 

The meeting last week was the most recent step taken by UNR regarding the human remains. A Nevada tribal member first raised the issue to the Nevada Indian Commission in December 2020 during a meeting, asking the commission to intervene in order for the human remains to be returned to their tribes and homelands. 

On April 5, Sandoval, who became UNR’s president last year, told The Nevada Independent that the university was working closely with Indigenous faculty on the issue, had hired a national expert to investigate the campus for inventory and said it was “truly a sensitive issue.” 

“I want to ensure that this campus is absolutely and in complete compliance with any federal laws, and that we are very sensitive to the concerns of the Native leaders in the tribes throughout the state of Nevada,” Sandoval said. 

Nevada Indian Commission Executive Director Stacey Montooth first met with Sandoval on April 6, joined also by Native UNR faculty to start conversations about how to meet their goal. 

On May 14, Moddelmog confirmed that the university was working with the Nevada Indian Commission to repatriate the human remains within the anthropology department in an email to The Nevada Independent. 

But last week’s meeting marked a significant point in the process, as it was the first time Sandoval met with a wide group of leaders from Nevada tribes in person to discuss repatriation. 

Markie Wilder, the UNR Indigenous Student Services coordinator and Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe member, who attended both meetings, said tribal leaders initially expressed shock last week when they were briefed with more details, specifically about how long the remains have been held in collections at UNR and the few efforts to notify them. 

The UNR officials told tribal leaders that a letter had been sent to tribal nations throughout Nevada in the 1990s regarding the remains, Torres said. She doesn’t consider that a meaningful attempt to contact the tribes. 

“The one letter was inadequate,” she said. “That was probably close to 25 years ago that they sent that letter out and they’ve had those remains ever since.” 

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding are required to repatriate or transfer Native American remains and cultural items.  The law also recognizes that human remains or cultural items belong to lineal descendants, tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. 

Consultation with tribes is also required under the law, including protection of and planning for human remains or items that may be displaced from federal or tribal lands, identification and reporting of all human remains and cultural items in inventories or summaries of collections and giving notice to tribes prior to repatriating or transferring human remains or items. 

NAGPRA applies to museums, universities, state agencies and local governments. Failure to comply can result in criminal prosecution, civil penalties and loss of grant funding for institutions. 

Next steps 

According to Moddelmog, UNR will be sharing a timeline for the repatriation process with Native leaders this week. The university is also looking to hire a Director of Tribal Relations and a NAGPRA Liaison and Project Specialist to assist in its efforts to return human remains and cultural items and strengthen ties between the institution and Native communities. 

“These individuals will help us not only execute our responsibilities to federal and state laws and policies related to Indigenous communities but also expand our commitment to developing meaningful, long-standing, and collaborative relationships with Great Basin Tribal Nations and Tribal Organizations so that we can truly be of service to the Indigenous communities,” Moddelmog said. 

Earlier this year, UNR hired Cogstone Resource Management, a California-based consulting company, to conduct a full search of the campus for human remains and cultural items. The company specializes in paleontology, archaeology and heritage protection and emergency management services, according to its website. A Cogstone representative has yet to visit the university to conduct the investigation or report findings. 

In addition to accurately identifying the human remains and linking them to their original homelands across the state, the university also must consult with the Bureau of Land Management, as some of the human remains were discovered on federal lands, according to Moddelmog.  

During last week’s meeting, the question of how to repatriate the human remains was brought up, though Torres said it didn’t generate much debate among tribal leaders.

“We really don't care what that process is as long as our ancestors are given back to us so that we can put them back into the earth in a timely manner,” Torres said. “Right now, they're disturbed.” 

Sandoval pledged to distribute information to tribal leaders once the search for human remains and cultural items is completed and documented. Wilder said Sandoval now has a standing item on the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada’s monthly agenda for the foreseeable future to provide updates on repatriation. 

The issue of bringing their ancestors home from the confines of storage within the university evokes complicated emotions for Native people and leaders. Torres said she felt very angry at the beginning of the meeting because the university had previously lacked outreach efforts to consult Native leaders. She also said she felt disheartened that the university hadn’t chosen leaders from Nevada tribes to help conduct the search on campus and help identify the human remains and cultural items. 

But the solution-based approach of the meeting helped her feel more hopeful toward the end. 

“I felt a little bit calmer as we went on because we really set some things in stone of how the tribes were going to work together to make this happen because, ultimately, people don't understand that when you hold onto remains, or you take things that are not yours or you displace them, that bad medicine can come with that and that's what we're really trying to forewarn them about as well,” she said. 

Torres also said she thinks Sandoval will make good on his promise.

“Because he was the previous governor, he knows that tribes mean business and he knows exactly how sacred our ancestors are to us and our cultures and our traditions,” she said. “So I think he will make it happen in a timely manner. I see him following through on it and holding his staff accountable.”

Last month, Sandoval and other leaders within the state’s higher education system drew praise from Indigenous leaders for legislation that waives fees at Nevada colleges and universities for Native students. Tribal leaders expressed hope that the legislation will expand opportunities for their community members and their ties to the university. Currently, there are 117 students at UNR who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native and 405 who identify as Native and a different race. 

Jacob Solis contributed reporting to this story.

Sisolak's Innovation Zone concept, repackaged as a study, gets first public hearing — without its original backer

Labor unions and blockchains advocates testified Tuesday in support of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s request that the Legislature form a joint special committee to study the idea of allowing private developers to effectively form new local governments, or Innovation Zones. Even initial skeptics of the highly-publicized concept signaled that they were open to the study. 

But there was a notable absence at the hearing: The concept’s original backer, Blockchains Inc., did not testify. In fact, the company’s name was rarely mentioned in the one-hour hearing.

After the hearing, Pete Ernaut, a lobbyist for Blockchains, said that the company did not testify because the study was about the Innovation Zone concept, rather than one specific project.

“The study is not a referendum on this specific project,” Ernaut said. “It’s an opportunity to vet the entire concept, so it was more appropriate to have the governor and the Legislature work on the details and create the committee. And we will have more than adequate time to make our case, because we very much believe in the project.”

Tuesday marked the first public hearing for the Innovation Zone proposal, a concept that was embraced by the governor and originally pushed by Blockchains. The company, which owns about 67,000 acres of land in Storey County, wanted to create a new local government. 

But after the concept received an icy reception from lawmakers, rural counties and progressives in his party, the Democratic governor, last month, scrapped plans to pass enabling legislation.

Instead, Sisolak proposed alternative legislation, SCR11, to study the Innovation Zone proposal. That concurrent resolution, heard before the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections Tuesday afternoon, would comprise six lawmakers appointed by legislative leadership. 

The committee would be tasked with recommending whether to take further legislative action on the idea, evaluating the effects of Innovation Zones on everything from economic development to affordable housing, local tax revenue and natural resources, including the availability of water.

Under the proposed language, the committee would submit a final report by the end of the year. 

“It became clear in recent weeks that a proposal of this magnitude was not going to fit into this particular session,” Scott Gilles, Sisolak’s senior advisor, said in a presentation for SCR11. “The governor believes this idea warrants and deserves a proper vetting, a proper analysis and time to work through the complex pieces of the proposed legislation.”

Any future Innovation Zone legislation that did pass, Gilles noted, would have general application.

“Yes, there obviously is a project, which everyone has read about, in Storey County that would be looking to take advantage of the legislation,” Gilles said in response to a question from a legislator. “But it would be general law legislation that could be taken advantage of anywhere throughout the state if the appropriate financial commitments and plans were in place.”

Sisolak first unveiled the Innovation Zone concept in his State of the State speech in January, but he offered few details. A few weeks later, Blockchains , a cryptocurrency startup with land in Storey County, began to circulate draft legislation for the Innovation Zone proposal. 

That draft bill would have allowed private developers, with large land holdings, to effectively form new county-like governments if they committed to invest more than $1 billion over 10 years and identified a new revenue source for the state. Yet the proposal raised numerous questions, and many were quick to draw comparisons between the proposal and former company towns.

Although early drafts of the Innovation Zone legislation were circulated, a final version has yet to be released to the public. Gilles said a final version is still being drafted, but Sisolak’s office is  hopeful that the Legislative Counsel Bureau will finish a final draft by the end of the session.

Once a final draft is released by the Legislative Counsel Bureau, Gilles said that a “joint special committee would have a draft piece of legislation to work off of through that committee process.” 

At the hearing Tuesday, business interests and representatives from labor unions in Southern and Northern Nevada came out strongly in favor of the Innovation Zone proposal and the study. 

“This issue represents the biggest opportunity in Nevada to diversify our economy, and probably the biggest opportunity to put Nevadans to work,” said Danny Thompson, representing IBEW 1245, IBEW 396, Operating Engineers Local 3 and Operating Engineers Local 12. 

Several advocates of Blockchains technology, including Brock Pierce, who co-founded the cryptocurrency Tether and starred in The Mighty Ducks, also spoke in favor of the study.

Despite public criticism of the draft Innovation Zone legislation, only one group criticized the study contemplated in SCR11. The opposition came from a progressive group, highlighting the political challenges that Sisolak would have likely faced if he had pushed the initial bill draft.

Annette Magnus, the executive director of Battle Born Progress, said that when the state faces so many issues from unaffordable housing to health care access, “it is grievously inappropriate the amount of time and energy spent this session discussing the proposal to give a billionaire CEO and an unproven company their own autonomous form of government.”

Among the concerns with the draft bill was where Blockchains would get enough water to build out the Innovation Zone, which contemplated a development with about 36,000 residents.

The Nevada Independent highlighted numerous concerns with supplying water to the Innovation Zone proposed by Blockchains. Blockchains had purchased faraway water in northern Washoe County, about 100 miles away from its property. Pumping and moving that water could be costly and negatively affect the hydrology around Pyramid Lake, the terminus of the Truckee River.

For decades, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has fought to bring more water to the lake as part of an effort to restore two imperiled species, the cui-ui and the Lahontan cutthroat throat, the state fish. In written testimony Tuesday, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Chairwoman Janet Davis said the tribe initially opposed the proposal “due to a lack of transparency and tribal inclusion.”

But Davis wrote that the tribe was neutral on the legislation to create the study, as it required the inclusion of tribal perspectives and an evaluation of how Innovation Zones might affect water. 

“In addition,” Davis wrote in testimony, “we would like to note that any analysis of the potential for the creation of new forms of governments, such as an innovation zone, should protect the tenets of adjudicated agreements, such as the Truckee River Operating Agreement, and must include the need for government-to-government consultation with Native American tribes.”

Rural counties had also raised serious concerns with the original proposal. In March, Storey County commissioners voted to oppose “separatist governing control” within their jurisdiction.

A Storey County water district that serves the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, where Blockchains owns most of its land, identified several issues with the proposal. The Tahoe Reno Industrial General Improvement District was primarily formed to serve businesses, not residences.

On Tuesday, Storey County Manager Austin Osborne said that the county was neutral on the interim study. But he said the county believed that the joint special committee, if it is empaneled, would find that “the separation from government is not necessary and is not appropriate.” 

Indigenous leaders, environmentalists urge lawmakers to pass protections for sacred swamp cedars

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

A lot of news this week, and it’s only halfway over. On that note, a small piece of programming. As we spring forward into daylight saving time, so too is this newsletter. We are moving the run date for the Indy Environment newsletter up to Wednesday for the foreseeable future. 

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


Most Rocky Mountain juniper trees grow at elevation. But near the eastern edge of the state, a  unique population of large juniper trees rest on a valley floor. For generations, the trees have lived in an area within Spring Valley, outside of Ely, that is known as Bahsahwahbee, or “the sacred water valley” in Shoshone. For Indigenous communities in the area, it is everything.

On Monday, Delaine Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone elder, told lawmakers that the land is sometimes compared to Mecca or Vatican City. Bahsahwahbee is a ceremonial site for many communities in the area. It could also be compared to Wounded Knee. The land is the site of multiple gruesome massacres of hundreds of Indigenous people in the 1800s.

“But,” Spilsbury said, “I want to say that you cannot compare Bahsahwahbee to anywhere else. There is only one. And if the Swamp Cedars are gone from Bahsahwahbee, then it is all gone.”

The stands of unique juniper trees in Bahsahwahbee are described as the swamp cedars, and under proposed legislation, they could receive state protection, a measure widely supported by Indigenous communities and environmental groups during a hearing Monday evening.

Assembly Bill 171 would make it the state’s policy to protect the geographically distinct Rocky Mountain juniper population and make it illegal to damage the swamp cedars without obtaining a special permit from the state, similar to rules that govern other sensitive species. 

“When you get to this valley, you see how different and significant it is to have a stand of Rocky Mountain junipers thriving in this valley floor,” said Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor and the chair of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.

Watts said the bill’s language mirrors the protections given to distinct species for threats. Those designations are typically species-wide. But the proposed bill applies similar regulations, Watts said, to a subsection of the Rocky Mountain juniper population in Bahsahwahbee because of its importance to Indigenous communities and its unique presence in low-elevation habitat. 

Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, described the area as a sacred, spiritual and holy place for Goshute and Shoshone communities.

“My people were massacred in a very, very harsh way at swamp cedar,” Steele said. “Just like a seed, each one of those swamp cedars was fertilized by one of those that was massacred there. And through that, we live spiritually and connect with Mother Earth through them. And to destroy those trees would be an act of genocide.”

His message resonated with communities from other parts of the state. Marla McDade Williams, a lobbyist testifying on behalf of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said the ancestors of their Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe members “have been affected by issues like this throughout the history of this country.”

“That said, historical cultural areas of Nevada are important to all of us and we urge your support for AB 171,” McDade Williams said. 

If the legislation is approved, it would mark a significant moment for state law because it would be the first time a statute specifically protected a plant because of its cultural value. Watts said he saw the legislation fitting in with broader efforts to recognize Indigenous rights at the state level.

“One of the things I’ve been advocating for is addressing the long and painful history that our state and government has with Native American people,” Watts said in an interview Tuesday. “I think there’ve been a lot of instances, over time, including recently, where the cultural, spiritual beliefs of Native populations here have been overlooked or disregarded.”

Tribal leaders across northeastern Nevada stressed the importance of Bahsahwahbee, and the need for state protection. Although the land, controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, has several layers of protection, state protection would more concretely protect the plant. 

In the past, the swamp cedars faced threats from the proposed Las Vegas pipeline. For decades, the Southern Nevada Water Authority had sought permits to pump groundwater in Spring Valley and pipe it to Las Vegas. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which shelved its plans for the pipeline last year, has not taken a position on the legislation.

Several environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Nevada Conservation League, Great Basin Resource Watch and the Great Basin Water Network, supported the legislation.

In written testimony, the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said it supported the “spirit and intent” of the bill, but the agency raised concerns about precedent.

“We appear to be standing at the top of a long slippery slope,” Dominique Etchegoyhen, the agency’s deputy director. “There are innumerable important natural resources across this vast state, many of which are located on federal lands. These unique resources cannot all be individually recognized in state statute, each requiring a special permit issued by the State Forester Firewarden. The burden would simply be too great.”

But Etchegoyhen, in later testimony, said the state did support a second piece of legislation, AJR 4, an assembly joint resolution calling on the federal government to increase protections for the area.


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

A historic confirmation: Incoming Interior Secretary Deb Haaland made history as the first Indigenous person to serve in a cabinet-level position. The Senate confirmed Haaland to the position on Monday in a 51-40 vote. The Department of Interior oversees federal public land across the West, and the agency plays a decision-making role in everything from protecting sensitive ecosystems to permitting mines. The Interior Department is especially important in Nevada, where the federal government is responsible for managing about 85 percent of land within the state. 

  • Importantly, the agency oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That means “Haaland will also be responsible for upholding the government’s legally binding obligations to the tribes – treaty obligations that have been systematically violated with devastating consequences for life expectancy, exposure to environmental hazards, political participation and economic opportunities in Indian Country,” as reporter Nina Lakhani writes for The Guardian.
  • Soon after the election in November, the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada sent a letter of support to the incoming Biden administration for nominating Haaland. “As the leaders of sovereign tribal nations, we believe it is long past time that a Native American person serve as Secretary of Interior,” the Inter-Tribal Council wrote. After President Joe Biden nominated Haaland to lead the agency, we reached out to tribal leaders from across the state to talk about what her historic nomination meant. 

The mining tax debate: On Tuesday night, we hosted an IndyTalks panel on the debate in the Legislature over whether to change the constitutional cap on taxing mines. In August, legislators passed three resolutions in a special session that would increase how much the industry pays in taxes. Although legislators have not yet taken up the resolutions in this session, lawmakers are expected to weigh the proposals in the coming weeks. To amend the Constitution, the Legislature must approve the resolutions again. Then they would go to a vote in the 2022 general election.

All three resolutions kickstart the process of amending the Constitution. Two resolutions remove a 5 percent cap on the net proceeds of minerals and replace it with a 7.75 percent tax rate on gross proceeds, raising an estimated $541 million, with a portion of that revenue going toward education and health care or to Nevadans as a dividend. A third measure, cast as an “olive branch” to the industry, raises the net proceeds tax cap to 12 percent, but it is estimated to generate less revenue than the other proposals.

Our panel included Lorne Malkiewich, former Legislative Counsel Bureau director; Laura Martin, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada; and James Wadhams, a longtime lobbyist for the mining industry. Check out the full discussion here.

Sisolak on Blockchains and water: Last month, we reported on concerns, including from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, about acquiring the water needed for Blockchains LLC to develop a Smart City as part of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s “Innovation Zone” proposal. Last week, Sisolak’s spokesperson Meghin Delaney replied to two questions I sent to the office. Here they are:

  1.  Is the governor concerned about the environmental consequences of importing water? “Responsible and equitable use of Nevada’s water resources are top of mind and will be the focus of much work between all the parties involved before any approvals are granted.  An Innovation Zone developer will be required to navigate the same water use rules as any other developer in Nevada.”
  1. Has the state consulted with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe or considered their views? “The state is in the very early stages of a long-term project, and the state is committed to working with all stakeholders on the responsible development of the Innovation Zone. The door is always open to the PLPT to answer any questions the tribe may have about the proposal.”

Gold mining outside of Death Valley: The Los Angeles Times’ Louis Sahagún writes about Indigenous communities and environmental groups pushing back against a proposed gold mine near Death Valley. He writes that “environmental groups and tribal nations have drawn a line in the alluvial sands overlooking the community of Lone Pine, population 2,000, on the eastern flanks of the Sierra Nevada range: No mining in Conglomerate Mesa, not ever again.”


Drought across the West: “The Western US is in the midst of yet another dangerous dry spell. The drought has been building over the past year, and since November, a greater stretch of the West has been in the most severe category of drought than at any time in the 20 years that the National Drought Mitigation Center has been keeping records,”  Lili Pike writes for Vox in an article that makes the connection to climate change. 

New report calls for stronger climate action: “A new analysis finds that Nevada is not on track to meet its 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets absent stronger clean energy policies,” Jeniffer Solis reports for the Nevada Current. “The analysis by research firm Energy Innovation — based on a state-specific version of the firm’s “energy policy simulator“— shows that without additional action Nevada’s emissions will actually increase 12 percent by 2050 as fossil fuel use outpaces solar power and electric vehicle growth.”

30 by 30: The Sierra Nevada Ally’s Brian Bahouth has a good piece about testimony in the Legislature on a resolution supporting the conservation of 30 percent of the state by 2030.

Thacker Pass, lithium and mining: Grist’s Maddie Stone writes about the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine, approved in the final days of the Trump administration. From the story: “The controversy over Thacker Pass highlights a much bigger challenge the Biden administration will have to grapple with in order to quickly transition the U.S. economy to carbon-free energy sources: How to acquire the vast mineral resources that are needed, such as metals needed for batteries, like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, without sacrificing biodiversity or the health of communities living nearby mining projects.”

Something to watch: “As part of its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has identified more than 2,000 MW of new renewable energy generation in southwest Nevada that would help California achieve its climate change goals,” Gridliance announced in a press release this week. More to report on this in the coming weeks.

Nevada tribes roll through vaccine process, feel hopeful for the future

Pyramid Lake

At dawn on a Saturday morning in late February, Autumn Harry eagerly secured her spot in line to receive the Moderna vaccine through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s health clinic. 

Seated in her vehicle at 6 a.m., she was three hours early to the 9 a.m. vaccine event for tribal members, with only three vehicles ahead of her. 

“And when I left, there was probably closer to 50 cars that were lined up waiting to get their shot,” Harry, 28, said. “And many of those cars were whole families that were inside, you know, so it was really moving to see so many members from my community wanting to get their vaccine.” 

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is one of many tribes around the state and country moving quickly through the vaccine rollout process, opening appointments and eligibility to the general tribal population 18 and over. There are more than 2,000 enrolled members of the tribe in Northern Nevada. 

For tribal members, reaching the final stages of the vaccine rollout provides a greater sense of safety and hope among the disproportionately hit population. 

“It has been really devastating for so many of our Native communities with COVID because we have had a lot of elders and knowledge-keepers who have passed from the virus,” Harry said. “There's still so many families that are grieving, and also just people who have recovered from the virus, they're still dealing with the long-lasting effects from COVID.” 

There have been 223 cases of COVID-19 and five deaths among the tribe as of Thursday. Across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that Native Americans are nearly twice as likely to die from the virus than non-Hispanic whites, with the disparity highest among those ages 20 to 49. 

Harry said she felt happy upon receiving the vaccine, but more than that, she felt a sense of relief. 

Autumn Harry of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe received her first dose the Moderna vaccine in late February. Photo courtesy of Autumn Harry.

She and the other tribal members who received vaccines in late February are scheduled to receive the final dose in a few weeks. As of Thursday, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe had administered 733 doses of the Moderna vaccine. 

Other tribes that have moved to the final stage of the vaccine distribution process include the Walker River Paiute Tribe, the Moapa Band of Paiutes, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Elko Band. 

Walker River Paiute Tribal Chairman Amber Torres said the small population size of the tribe helped the vaccine distribution speed along to its final stages within two months of receiving the initial allotment of Moderna doses from the Indian Health Service, a federal agency responsible for the public health needs of tribes across the country. There are more than 1,000 tribal members living on the reservation 100 miles southeast of Reno. 

“I think it did work to our advantage because we did see that in the urban areas, they were still trying to work on first responders, health care personnel, teachers, those types of things where we were ready to move into the second tier at that point,” Torres said. 

The Walker River Paiute Tribe has administered vaccines to more than 500 tribal members as of last week, with the goal of reaching more than 600 on the reservation. 

South of Las Vegas, the Moapa Band of Paiutes expanded availability for the Moderna vaccine to tribal members over the age of 18 on March 1. More than 300 enrolled members live on the reservation. Tribal Secretary Ashly Osborne credits the success of the tribe’s quick distribution to the preparedness of the tribal council. 

“We were always a step ahead. Things back at home, I would say are running efficiently. They felt safe, they felt secure, they had access,” said Osborne, referring to tribal members. 

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony will also expand the vaccine tier to the population 18 and over on Monday, announced tribal leaders during a live meeting on Facebook last week.  

There are more than 1,000 enrolled members in the Reno colony and the Hungry Valley Reservation. But the tribal health clinic treats non-Native patients as well, so the vaccine distribution process has been a heavier lift for the clinic and tribe. 

Tribal Administrator Angie Wilson said the tribe has been tight on vaccine allotments through the Indian Health Service, which she acknowledged as an issue the state and local counties have experienced as well. 

Wilson said another issue the tribe and clinic are facing amid the vaccine rollout is that some tribal members who have received their first shot are not showing up to their appointments for the final dose, which is needed for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, but not the newer Janssen vaccine. The tribe won’t receive allotments of the latter until April. 

“Getting the vaccines is critical,” said Wilson. “We're not only facing the challenge of these vaccines, but we're also being challenged in the administration and the logistics of getting these vaccines out to such a high Indian population here.” 

In the farthest northeast corner of the state, Elko Band Chairman Davis Gonzales said the tribe moved smoothly through the vaccine process, now distributing vaccines to all members 18 and older. More than 1,200 tribal members live in the colony. 

Gonzales said the tribe is focused on reaching tribal members who haven’t received their shots at this point. He said he scolds tribal members he comes in contact with who haven’t received the vaccine. 

“Get the damn shot because COVID don’t care who you are, what you look like, it’s going to jump on you and make you sick!” said the chairman, who received his shot about a month ago.

Bethany Sam, spokesperson for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, echoed Gonzales’ urgency. 

“Our ancestors went through this with smallpox and they didn't have the science that we have now and I just think about how our tribes had to leave people behind so they wouldn't infect the rest of the community,” Sam said. “And now we have a vaccine, we don't have to do that, so I'm just encouraging you all to really think about the vaccine and scheduling your appointments as we start opening it up by March 15.” 

Looking ahead with hope

As sovereign nations, many Nevada tribes implemented tighter restrictions on reservations than state or local directives in the last year during the pandemic. Many ordered curfews, mask mandates and completely closed reservation borders to non-residents in an effort to protect vulnerable communities. 

Torres of the Walker River Paiute Tribe credits the strict measures with the tribe’s success in maintaining low case numbers throughout the reservation. 

“We put a lot of measures in place early on in March. I think that was also what helped us keep our numbers down, because we do have a majority of our membership who work off of the reservation. So they're going in and out every day, but we wanted to make sure that once they were home, everything was safe here,” she said. 

As the state and local directives have yo-yoed through phases and “pauses,” tribes remained steadfast in their orders, with some only now, a year later, having conversations among tribal councils about loosening restrictions while maintaining mask mandates and social distancing. 

“We're really trying to also promote that if you get vaccinated, we can get back into the new normal and start looking at soft openings of businesses, entities, possibly Weber Reservoir in the future because our people will possibly be safe at that point,” Torres said. 

She added that she’s concerned about stalling a reopening in the springtime, as nonresidents seek to spend time among the reservation’s recreational areas, such as the reservoir. Last year when the tribe closed its borders, nonresidents trespassed and broke, shot and burned signs that warned the reservation was closed. 

“If we do decide to keep our reservoir closed, I hope that people can respect that decision because again, we as a sovereign nation make decisions on the best behalf of our membership,” she said.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe reopened the reservation to recreational visitors in November. The Moapa Band of Paiutes lifted the curfew order and reopened the reservation for residents, but still requires non-residents to present a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination to enter. The Elko Band Colony doesn’t have many restrictions in place for the reservation, except for a mask mandate and a restriction on events or large gatherings. 

Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez said the tribal council would weigh the decision in a meeting last week, adding that he wanted to be cautious of opening too soon. 

“What we don’t want to do is open up too early,” he said during the live meeting on Facebook, adding that loosening restrictions prematurely could make all their “effort go down the drain.” 

“So we're just gonna have to wait and see what happens there but we're being vigilant here at Reno-Sparks and we're taking our time and trying to do things right as far as opening up,” Melendez said. 

Torres and Osborne from the Walker River Paiute Tribe and Moapa Band of Paiutes, respectively, said tribal members are eager to participate in important cultural gatherings and be in community again. 

“I think that's been the biggest burden on our reservation is that people can't practice ceremony, and just the way we interact with people as our relatives, as Native people, it’s not what we're used to,” she said. 

Both Torres and Osborne also said they didn’t know what to expect when their first vaccine allotments arrived from the Indian Health Service. Torres said she received “kickback” from tribal members initially regarding the vaccine, but that pushback has subsided and it’s become more normalized now. 

Osborne said that when the pandemic began a year ago, the tribal council grappled with how to handle the unprecedented event. 

“It was terrifying,” she said. “It was challenging at times, when we didn't feel that this was going to end. And I think that our biggest concern that I've always stressed to a lot of people that I spoke to about this is that not only do we have to worry about our immediate families, like losing a loved one, but the preservation of our culture.” 

Osborne credits the work of the tribal council in protecting their community through the pandemic during the last year. 

“All of us working simultaneously together really was able to preserve not only our culture, but take care of our people and keep it going — resilience,” she said. 

Months before a company lobbied the Legislature to create its own county, it purchased faraway water rights that could fuel future growth

Near the edge of the Black Rock Desert, where thousands of visitors travel to the Burning Man Festival each fall, irrigation systems stand idle on a fallow field in February. 

The land looks like many other agricultural operations in the state — but looks can be deceiving.

The titles to the water underneath farmland in this rural area are now held by Blockchains LLC, a company touted by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and lobbying lawmakers for a new statute that could effectively give the private cryptocurrency business the sovereign powers of a county.

Blockchains, which bought about 67,000 acres in and around the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center in 2018, briefed lawmakers this week on plans to develop “Painted Rock Smart City.” To do so, Blockchains wants Nevada to create “Innovation Zones,” a pathway for large-scale developers focused on technology to break away from existing counties if they make major investments. 

Sisolak backed the concept in his State of the State speech earlier this year, singling out the company, which has donated thousands to the governor and other politicians (Blockchains and its CEO Jeffrey Berns also have donated to The Nevada Independent, which discloses all donors).

“Following the passage of my Innovation Zone legislation,” Sisolak said in January, “Blockchains LLC has committed to make an unprecedented investment in our state to create a smart city in northern Nevada that would fully run on blockchain technology — making Nevada the epicenter of this emerging industry and creating the high-paying jobs and revenue to go with it.”

A new city — Blockchains wants to build about 15,000 dwelling units — will require finding water in an area where it is scarce. The industrial center’s water district is committed to serving Blockchains a portion of water, according to its service plan. But the allocation is not enough potable water to support a city projected to have more than 36,000 residents and 22 million square-feet of industrial development.

To get the water it needs, Blockchains is looking at importing it from rural Nevada.

"Most of the water we’ve looked at is up north,” Lee Weiss, the company’s executive vice president said in an interview. “The water we’ve recently acquired is still in Washoe [County].”

The company, Weiss said, has looked in other areas, including in Humboldt County, noting that it has “been looking at water deals and potential ones since we first were interested in the land.” 

The Black Rock Desert on Dec. 31, 2020. Blockchains LLC purchased water rights in a nearby groundwater basin about 100 miles from its land in and around the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

At the edge of the Black Rock Desert

In late November, Blockchains entered into agreements for a cache of faraway water rights for more than $30 million, according to documents filed with Washoe County recorder’s office. One month later, state officials received documents to put the water in Blockchains’ name. The water, primarily used for agriculture, is in northern Washoe County outside the town of Gerlach.

If fully permitted and transferred about 100 miles, the water could help fuel growth in the company’s futuristic city at the center of the state’s economic development strategy. The water would be enough to fill thousands of football fields to a depth of one foot — each year.

Even if the company moved a portion of its water to its planned town near Reno, such an action could cause environmental damage and face a litany of local, state, federal and tribal permitting challenges. Infrastructure needed to convey the water could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

When a developer tried to export water from the area in 2007, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Washoe County, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Sierra Club all raised concerns. 

"The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is fiercely protective of its water resources, and 15 years ago, the tribe opposed an effort to move this same water from the San Emedio Basin to Fernley,” said Chris Mixson, an attorney for the tribe. “We’re watching these water rights very closely.”

There are also lingering questions about how Blockchains plans to manage sewage capacity for a new city along the Truckee River. Wastewater treatment can prove costly, and the tribe, along with other water users, would likely contest any plans to discharge additional effluent in the river.

Based on the advice the company has received, Weiss said he was confident Blockchains could move water in a way that was environmentally sound and did not conflict with other water use.

“We’ve looked at other potential purchases where the obstacles were much more than the ones here,” Weiss said, adding that Blockchians rejected other deals over environmental concerns. 

Meghin Delaney, a spokesperson for Sisolak, did not respond to emails about whether Sisolak was aware of the company’s water portfolio or had concerns about water related to the project. 

His administration might have to sign off on Blockchains’ water plan.

Under one draft of the legislation, a developer looking to create an “Innovation Zone” must show the Governor’s Office of Economic Development that they have “secured or can secure access to public utilities and natural resources necessary for the development proposed for the zone.”

A sign pointing to the San Emedio Basin, where Blockchains LLC purchased water, on Feb. 6, 2020. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

Recording a new deed

On Nov. 17, Washoe County recorded a water rights deed. 

The document, in addition to other agreements filed with Washoe County, handed over a varied collection of water rights to Blockchains in two areas, miles away from where the company owns land. Of the more than 7,000 acre-feet of water rights Blockchains purchased, Weiss said the company could only use a portion — about 5,900 acre-feet — of those rights.

An acre-foot of water can serve a little more than two homes per year in the Reno area.

A portion of the water, according to the state’s database of all water rights, is in the San Emedio Basin, outside of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s reservation. The water is used to irrigate land at Empire Farms, according to records, and sits in an area used to generate geothermal power.

The second collection of water is tied to farming in Hualapai Flat, below the Granite Range and near the playa that hosts Burning Man each year. Hualapai Flat is also home to the iconic Fly  Geyser, which is located on a ranch that was purchased by the Burning Man Project in 2016. 

For years, developers have eyed moving the water to fuel municipal and industrial development.

Blockchains purchased its water from Sonterra Development Company. Sonterra, controlled by Wade Company and Flagstone Fernley Holdings, had planned to develop land in Fernley. In June 2019, Sonterra sold its Fernley lands, according to an agreement signed with Blockchains.

In 2007, Sonterra Development Company proposed a pipeline to transfer the agricultural water to Storey County, where the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center is located, and Lyon County. At the time, Sonterra told state water officials that the project was estimated to cost $100 million and take about 10 years before the agricultural water was put to municipal use, records show.

Others have sought to pipe water out of the area. At Hualapai Flat, another entity, High Rock Holdings LLC, applied with the state to ship roughly 10,000 to 14,000 acre-feet to many of the same locations in 2007, according to a protest Washoe County filed with state water regulators. 

Lahontan cutthroat trout in a Pyramid Lake spawning channel on March 2, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Moving water around

Finding water to fuel growth in and around the industrial center has long proved challenging.

The industrial center, home to the Tesla Gigafactory, is located along the Truckee River, which is fed by snowpack in basins around Lake Tahoe and empties into Pyramid Lake. Along the way, the Truckee River is used as a source for drinking water in Reno, Sparks and Washoe County. Through a canal, some of the river is diverted to irrigate farms in and around Fallon.

As with many watersheds, there are increasing and often competing demands on the Truckee River, with little water to spare. The river is tightly regulated to protect water quality and Pyramid Lake. With limits on the river, developers have looked elsewhere, only to meet a slew of challenges. 

Weiss said the company continues to look for more water to support the project.

“We recently committed to purchase certain water and we’re out there looking for more and always evaluating what our future needs are going to be and how we can fulfill those needs, along with assistance from our advisors, including our water counsel,” Weiss said.

When Sonterra and High Rock Holdings proposed exporting water to western Nevada in 2007, they faced pushback from environmental groups and entities at various levels of government. 

In a protest filed with state water regulators, the Bureau of Land Management raised concerns that exporting too much water — and transferring the use from agriculture — could harm local springs and limit future growth in an area with potential for geothermal and outdoor recreation. 

In 2007, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe told state officials that taking water from the San Emedio Basin could hinder decadeslong efforts to restore Pyramid Lake. For years, the tribe has worked with the federal government and Truckee River users to improve conditions for two endangered fish, the cui-ui and the Lahontan cutthroat trout. Recreation at Pyramid Lake is central to the tribe’s economy.

The Sierra Club and the Great Basin Water Network filed a similar challenge. 

Were Blockchains to move its water, it is likely that many of the same entities would file protests. The Burning Man Project, which has water rights in Hualapai Flat, declined to comment, but the organization has been involved in water-related issues in the area. The nonprofit recently submitted comments on a proposed geothermal project and expansion near Gerlach. 

When it comes to transferring water from farms to cities, Nevada law requires developers meet a high threshold to prove their project will not harm the public or existing water rights in an area. They must prove a project is environmentally sound and not detrimental to the public interest. 

State regulators never ruled on the merits of the 2007 proposal. In 2010, the state denied the project; Sonterra’s plans for the water had been put on hold after the housing market crashed. 

Horses at Tahoe Reno Industrial Center
Wild horses at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Existing water at the industrial center

As the economy recovered, the area in and around Reno began to grow quickly. 

The industrial center played a pivotal role in that growth. Mirroring the economic development strategy of other states, former Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval used tax incentives to lure Tesla and other companies to the park. But for long-term growth, there was a need for more water.

Over the past few years, the industrial center’s water district negotiated with local governments to build a pipeline that would send treated effluent to the industrial park. The project was cast as a win-win, keeping effluent out of the river and providing reclaimed water to grow businesses. 

The industrial center’s water district history may appear to offer a precedent for the Blockchains proposal to give private interests the power of local governments. For years, the water district’s board and operations were controlled by the industrial park’s developer. After the district tried to use eminent domain, as reported by The Nevada Independent, it restructured its operations.

In January, the Storey County Commission became the district’s ex-officio board of trustees. 

According to the service plan for the water district, known as the Tahoe Reno Industrial General Improvement District, the treated effluent will go into what is known as a “process water” budget.

Out of that budget, Blockchains is entitled to 1,800 acre-feet of water, according to the plan.

The residential development that Blockchains is proposing would be located in the Painted Rock area off of I-80, east of the industrial center’s footprint, Weiss confirmed. Whether the industrial center’s water district would serve that area is subject to discussion, Weiss said. 

If Blockchains wanted to import water, it’s also unclear whether the district would be involved, especially if the company effectively forms a local government. Shari Whalen, who operates the water district, said that “Blockchains has not contacted us about any water importation project.”

In the meantime, she said the water district is reviewing the proposed legislation. 

“The district is concerned about the bill draft, and we have questions about it,” Whalen said.

The fifth annual Women’s March will shift online amid the pandemic, organizers aim to foster healing and strength

Four years ago, thousands of Nevadans flooded downtown Reno in a sea of knitted pink “pussyhats” in opposition to Donald Trump’s presidency, led by Native women and girls. 

As the fifth Women's March kicks off virtually this weekend, Nevada organizers are reflecting on what the event means to them amid the pandemic and which issues they are tackling this year, as a new White House administration leads the country.

“I do feel hopeful,” said organizer Autumn Harry. “And I'm also preparing myself, and I think a lot of others are preparing themselves for the work that's going to continue.” 

The event will open with remarks by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada’s first female U.S. senator and the country’s first Latina senator, and Sen. Jacky Rosen, Nevada’s second female senator. Charlotte Harry, a Pyramid Lake tribal elder, will say a prayer, and Jolie Varela, who is Paiute and Tule River Yokut, will say the land acknowledgment in recognition of the original people, and women, of the state. 

An opening video featuring Native women is intended to raise awareness of harm against women and Native land. There also will be more than a dozen local female speakers, one male speaker, spoken word artists and female musicians

Thousands of people have participated in the annual Reno Women’s March in the past, and organizers hope people will still tune in this year in order to continue to uplift women’s voices. 

“Our voices still need to be heard,” said Native community organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) Beverly Harry, also Autumn Harry's mother.

Mother and daughter pose for a photo
Autumn and Beverly Harry have helped organize the Reno Women's March since 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Executive Director Laura Martin echoed Beverly Harry, affirming the Women’s March as a prominent space to listen to women from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds. 

“This for years has also provided the space to really have tough conversations about making room for Black voices, making room for Indigenous leadership, making room Latinx leadership, when sometimes it was lacking,” Martin said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. 

“I think sometimes people want us for the front facing visuals, but don't take our ideas seriously, don't take our vision seriously.” 

Healing women, healing the land 

Native women at the forefront of the march, as has been the case since 2017, continue to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) and people, who experience sexual assault and are murdered at rates higher than the national average — and more than other racial and ethnic groups. 

But this year, the issue hits closer to home. In December, Amanda Davis, 37 and pregnant, was killed in her home on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe reservation. Her boyfriend, father of the baby she was pregnant with, is facing second-degree murder charges. His trial is scheduled for February. 

Compounded by the loss felt across Native communities caused by the pandemic, there is a greater theme of healing this year. 

“I think it's just really just allowing this reflection time and like, Okay, well, what can we do right now to better support ourselves, our communities, our families? We can't really rely on the government, and even tribal programs to make us feel safe,” Autumn Harry said. 

For Autumn and Beverly Harry, healing and fighting for justice for murdered Native women is intertwined with justice for the environment and Native land.

“Our message in this Women's March is justice for our sisters and our Earth Mother,” said Beverly Harry. “We have to acknowledge that in order to survive for the next seven generations, we need to take care of our Earth Mother, and we need to become more accountable and more responsible.” 

Organizing events such as the Women’s March helps create greater visibility for Native women and dismantle prejudices. 

“Most of the time when we're dealing with these types of issues, it's because people think that we're less than human, that we’re put down on a lower level. We offer people a different understanding of who we are. We're beautiful people,” Beverly Harry said.

Strides made, moving forward

The years following Trump’s 2017 inauguration saw historic numbers of women running for and being elected to office, shifting representation in Congress. 

The national wave is reflected in Nevada, too, which made history as the first state in the country to elect a female-majority Legislature in 2018, and then increased that number in 2020. The 2021 Legislature commences on Feb. 1, and the nearly 60 percent of seats filled by women marks the highest percentage of any other state. 

Martin pointed to this accomplishment as a major win since the first Women’s March, and said she hopes the legislation passed in the session will benefit Nevada women. 

“Let's set the new goal that the majority of our legislation that is passed has a positive impact on women and girls and is done so with intention,” Martin said. “It's not just a happy byproduct. But it's something that we can intentionally do to support the next generation of women and girls who may be our next Senate majority leader or maybe our next president.” 

Laura Martin, Executive Director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, poses for a photo at her home in Las Vegas on Jan. 22, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Other than policies the Legislature will pass, Martin is focused on efforts to “right the wrongs” caused by the pandemic, including housing assistance and supporting immigrant families.

“Anything that will, again, in a pandemic, keep families together, keep people safe,” she said.

Autumn Harry said she plans to focus on her grassroots community project to provide Pyramid Lake reservation residents with garden boxes to grow their own food so that tribal members can be more self-sufficient. 

Autumn Harry began providing tribal members on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe reservation with supplies to grow their own gardens. Photo courtesy of Autumn Harry.

Beverly Harry’s focus is to continue to raise awareness of environmental justice. 

“I would really appreciate some attention placed on protection for our water and our environment or our lands, and look at the injustices that have been caused by corporations,” she said, adding that this fosters greed and greater divide between classes and people.

All three women agreed that they will continue to work just as hard to hold the new Biden administration and state government accountable as they did during the Trump administration. 

“Regardless of who won, I think these past four years have put us in a strong position, because we've really learned that our strength comes from our community, the answers come from our community, the people who are closest to the pain are closest to the solution,” Martin said.

Updated on Jan. 23, 2021 at 1:56 p.m. to correct information regarding Amanda Davis' killer, who was the father of her unborn child, but not the father of her other three children.

A multi-year campaign convinced Congress to reject two military base expansions in Nevada — at least for now

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com.

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Everything will stay the same, for now.

Last week, Congress approved the National Defense Authorization Act, considered a must-pass bill because it funds the military and lays out annual defense spending. In Nevada, the notable news was not what was included in the legislation. The news was what Congress left out.

After three years of heated public meetings, backroom lobbying, proposed compromises and bipartisan resolutions from the Legislature, Congress rejected two military proposals to expand testing and training ranges onto hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, including the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and land that is sacred to Native American communities. 

No one expected Congress to flatly reject the proposals. At the same time, nobody expects the rejection to be permanent. The military is expected to continue pushing for the expansions.

The conventional wisdom was that the Air Force and the Navy, lobbying members of Congress outside of Nevada, would get at least a partial expansion of their respective training ranges. The Air Force operates the Nevada Test and Training Range north of Las Vegas. The Navy operates the Fallon Naval Air Station in Northern Nevada. Each branch said it needed more land to train.

For years, they articulated the same specification: To simulate modern warfare, they required more land to practice dropping ordances from greater distances and at greater elevations.

The public process for the two expansions kicked off in 2016 and continued in the following years as each branch conducted an environmental review of what withdrawing hundreds of thousands of acres for military use would mean for Indigenous communities, wildlife, hunters, miners, recreationists and the integrity of the land. Over the next two years, the military held several public meetings.

What those meetings illustrated was clear. There was no free land. It was already valued by different groups for different reasons (and in many cases, competing reasons). In both cases, a broad group of tribal leaders, environmentalists, ranchers, hunters and miners voiced opposition to the proposed expansions, poised to close off access to federal public land. Both proposals further threatened the integrity of sacred Indigenous land, including burial sites.

And in the case of the Southern Nevada expansion, the Air Force proposal threatened to give the military control over the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the lower 48.

Despite widespread opposition (the Legislature even passed bipartisan resolutions that opposed the expansions), Nevada politicians recognized what appeared to be inevitable: Congress was probably going to give the military something. And if the military was going to get something, the state should get something in return. Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed one alternative to the Navy expansion in 2018. Over the course of the past year, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto floated two compromises — one for the Air Force in December 2019 and one for the Navy this October.

"We had to make the assumption that a big organization like the Navy and the Air Force were going to pull out all the stops,” said Jocelyn Torres, a senior field director for the Conservation Lands Foundation. “And we had to be prepared that they might try to do something or convince senators and House members from other states that they would pass their proposals.”

In an interview last week, Cortez Masto said that she had always supported the status-quo, or no expansion. But she started engaging with groups on a compromise after she “was hearing that the Air Force, as well as the Navy, were making their rounds amongst all of my colleagues in both the House and the Senate to try to do a larger package and expand their footprint.”

Cortez Masto said the compromise legislation could serve as a “good marker” if the military proposes expansions in the future. And it is likely the military will be back with new proposals. 

“It's a semi-victory because you know they’re going to keep pushing it,” said Greg Anderson Sr., Vice Chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, which would be affected by the Air Force plan.

Congress stated as much in language that accompanied the defense authorization. In an explanatory statement, Congress directed the military to work with tribes, state officials and the Nevada delegation to come up with a “mutually-agreed upon expansion” of the two bases. In the statement, Congress said is “essential for the Nation’s tactical aviation readiness” and training.

On Wednesday, Zip Upham, a spokesperson for the Fallon base, said the requirements that led the Navy to propose the expansion have not changed. He said “the training need is still there.”

In an email, he said the Navy continues “to work collaboratively with all stakeholders involved in the process, including tribal leadership, local and state officials, other federal partners, miners, ranchers, conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts and the citizens of Nevada.”

The defense authorization, if it is signed into law (another story for a different newsletter), would also create committees at both bases to facilitate dialogue between the military and local, state and tribal governments. That could set the stage for discussions about a future expansion.

Still, any expansion is likely to face resistance from a range of Nevadans who believe that the military is already using an appropriate amount of public land. The Air Force’s range already occupies about 2.9 million acres. The Navy’s range occupies about 234,000 acres. And most compromise proposals, as with the one proposed in October, have also faced pushback. 


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

A historic appointment: New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, an enrolled tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo, is President-elect Joe Biden’s top candidate to run the Department of Interior, Reuters reported on Tuesday. Haaland’s appointment would mark the first time an Indigenous person has led the agency, which oversees the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (making it a decisionmaker in how about 67 percent of Nevada’s land — and almost all of rural Nevada — is protected/developed). 

The West, Nevada being no exception, is riddled with instances where the federal government in general, and the Interior Department in particular, has failed to prioritize the interests of tribes or even consult with them on making decisions that affect their land, water and culture. With the potential for an Interior Secretary who knows the rights of tribal governments and the history of their communities, Native American communities are hoping that all could begin to change. 

For weeks, tribal leaders from across the country have advocated for Haaland, who has a track record of working across the aisle and has fought to prioritize the interests of Tribes during her time in Congress. In November, the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada sent a letter of support for nominating Haaland. This week, I spoke to several leaders about what her appointment would signify for Indian Country and how it could reshape the culture of Interior’s bureaucracy:

  • “For one, it would be her breaking the glass ceiling once again. She’s one of the first Indigenous women to be voted into Congress,” said Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “It’d be someone who understands our frustration, how Indian Country works and someone who is willing to go to bat and help Indian Country.” 
  • “I think you need someone who not only understands the importance [of Interior] but lives that importance. For someone like Deb Haaland, I think there's some excitement in the air from Indigenous populations across the country because we need representation across all spaces,” said Brian Melendez, chair of the Nevada Statewide Native American Caucus. “Having an Indigenous representative who can convey the importance of honoring tribal sovereignty and self-determination — that is what is missing and has been missing for a long time in American government.”
  • “We recognize that it's long overdue, and I'm happy to hear that she's a possibility for that position,” said Anthony Sampson, Sr., Chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. “I think she can connect us better with the federal government as a tribal liaison and look at what we can do and what our needs are."
  • “We have to have somebody — a spokesperson,” said Greg Anderson, Vice Chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes. “We’re left out of a lot of things.”

The uranium plume, transparency and oversight: The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is soliciting comments on a proposal to privatize about 2,000 acres of public land at the Anaconda Copper Mine, where legacy mining practices led to massive uranium contamination in an aquifer used for agriculture, homes and the Yerington Paiute Tribe. An effort to privatize the land would leave one less regulator overseeing the cleanup, led by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection. The agency has faced criticism for shelving an EPA-accepted model of the contamination and approving one that was far more favorable to the company responsible for the cleanup. A BLM review questioned whether the new model relied on “good science.” 

The important context: A land transfer raises concerns about the transparency and oversight of the cleanup — and whether the voices of Native American tribes will be heard in the process. In October, a spokesperson for Cortez Masto said the senator was engaging at the state level and “continues to have concerns with the proposal to convey contaminated federal land to a private entity without the appropriate transparency and oversight.” Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office has not responded to requests about his administration’s position on the land transfer or the decision to significantly cut the company’s responsibility for the pollution. More from my story in October. 

Drought conditions across Nevada and the Colorado River Basin: This year was marked by significant warm and dry conditions across the West. From a climate scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies: “Compared to late 2019 and early 2020, when there was very little drought in the continental United States, this is quite an extreme single-year event that developed rapidly over the course of 2020. But if you look over longer time scales, I would argue this is really a continuation of a multi-decadal event that began around 2000. There have been some breaks, but the Southwest has been in more-or-less continuous drought conditions since then.” More on this (a sobering groundwater map) from an important NASA blog post.  

The future of Colorado River collaboration? The Southern Nevada Water Authority is making an initial investment of $6 million in a Southern California water recycling project with the hopes of eventually clearing up more water on the Colorado River as demand increases into the future. The deal was announced in a press release. This is the type of interstate collaboration that is definitely worth watching as the Colorado River is expected to face a drier future in a changing climate. I wrote more about the collaboration after it was discussed at a conference last year. 

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was nominated to serve as energy secretary on Tuesday. There’s Yucca, of course. But the Department of Energy will likely play a key role in solar and geothermal development under a Biden administration, in addition to how research and development funding is spent for new technologies needed to achieve state climate goals.

‘We need water to survive:’ The Arizona Republic’s Ian James published an important series on climate change, water and the Hopi Tribe. The third installment of the series, focused on the tribe’s push for expanded access to water and clean drinking water, was published this week. It is worth spending time with these stories, which touch on issues that resonate across the West. 

Update: This story was corrected on Dec. 18, 2020 to indicate that the public process for commenting on the military's proposed expansions began in 2016. An original version of the headline said that there was a three-year campaign opposing the proposals.

Election Day Primer: What you need to know as the 2020 campaign cycle comes to a close

You’ve seen the campaign ads, received the mailers and engaged in probably one too many political discussions with family or friends.

And, this year, there’s a good chance you already cast your ballot by mail or during in-person early voting. So take a deep breath. Exhale. We’re almost there.

The quadrennial American event has arrived. It’s Election Day in the United States, pitting President Donald Trump against former Vice President Joe Biden in the monthslong battle for the Oval Office. But a global pandemic, teetering economy and racial unrest have made this election cycle anything but ordinary. When the election dust settles — perhaps tonight, tomorrow, the next day or, gulp, many days from now — we’ll find out how those issues and more motivated the electorate, particularly young voters, Black voters, Latino voters, Asian American and Pacific Islander voters and Native American voters, who will play a significant role in determining election outcomes in Nevada and elsewhere.

The presidential campaigns have been courting all those votes while canvassing in person or virtually. They’re also paying particularly close attention to Washoe County, a longtime red region that has most recently gone blue.

In Nevada, more than 1.1 million voters had cast their ballots by Monday morning, eclipsing total turnout in the 2016 presidential election. 

The large number, in part, can be attributed to a pandemic-era change in voting methods. During a special legislative session in July, state lawmakers expanded mail-in voting for the general election. Consequently, all active registered voters in Nevada automatically received a mail ballot, which could be sent back or delivered to a secure drop-box by 7 p.m. today. Participating via mail was not required, though. Voters still had the option to vote in person during the early voting period (Oct. 17 through Oct. 30) or on Election Day.

If you’re clamoring for more details about the expanded mail-in election, read all about it here

For those of you who want to vote but haven’t registered to do so, don’t fret. There’s still time as long as you have a Nevada driver’s license or state identification card.

Nevada allows same-day voter registration, thanks to a law passed by the 2019 Legislature. That means you can visit a polling place, register to vote and cast your ballot on Election Day. Just don’t forget your ID.

Before you head out the door to vote, take a gander at our election page. It’s a one-stop shop for information about the candidates and ballot questions. (Click the “Select Language” button in the top right-hand corner to view the content in Spanish.)

Yes, the presidential election dominates headlines and overall chatter. But the down-ballot races arguably have more effect on your day-to-day life. Tired of pesky potholes littering your unincorporated county streets? Take it up with your county commissioners. Concerned about future coronavirus relief from the federal government? That’s an issue for your congressional representatives. And do you have children whose education has been affected by the pandemic? School boards will be guiding many of the reopening decisions.

So, without further ado, here are some links that will take you straight to our coverage about some key races or ballot questions:

Congressional

  • Rep. Mark Amodei, a Republican, represents Congressional District 2 — which has never elected a Democrat — but that hasn’t stopped his opponent, Democrat Patricia Ackerman, from mounting a bid for that office.
  • Rep. Susie Lee, a Democrat, is trying to retain her seat in swingy Congressional District 3 amid a challenge from Republican Dan Rodimer, an ex-professional wrestler turned local businessman. 
  • In Congressional District 4, Rep. Steven Horsford, a Democrat, is running for re-election against Republican Jim Marchant, a former one-term state assemblyman.

Legislature

  • Will Democrats keep their supermajority in the Assembly? This preview looks at five Assembly races that will play a large role in answering that question.
  • Unlike the Assembly, Democrats have been one seat shy of a supermajority in the Senate. Republicans are trying not to let that happen. This preview examines four pivotal Senate races in that battle. 

Ballot Questions

Check out the following stories and embedded videos explaining the five ballot questions.

Local Government

  • Four seats on the powerful Clark County Commission are up for grabs at a time when the county will be dealing with the financial aftermath of the pandemic.
  • The four Reno City Council races feature three ward positions and one at-large seat: Ward 1, Ward 3, Ward 5 and At-Large.
  • Republican incumbents are trying to hang onto two seats on the five-person Washoe County Commission, which guides the state’s second most populous county.
  • Voters will decide who they want as representation on the Sparks City Council for Ward 1 and Ward 3.

Judicial 

In Clark County, there are 31 judicial races up for grabs on the ballot, including for judges on the Nevada Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. We partnered with UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law to bring more information about these lesser-known but critically important races to voters. The 2020 Judicial Race Project includes questionnaires completed by judicial candidates as well as race analyses.

Education

Editor’s Note: We are so grateful here at The Indy for all the readers who have come to our site for deep looks at the elections, focused on candidate positions and experience. As the editor, I could not be prouder of how hard this remarkable staff has worked. For those who have voted, we hope you found these pages useful. For those who have not yet, there’s still time before you get to the polls. Happy Election Day, all. And as always, if you can afford to support the work of our nonprofit news team, monthly membership is the best way.

Nevada tribal governments join legal struggle in Trump’s lawsuit against Nevada’s expanded mail-in voting measure

Pyramid Lake

The Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribes last week sought to intervene in President Donald Trump’s lawsuit against Nevada’s mail-in voting measure approved for the general election, saying the law provides key accommodations for tribal members who face voting challenges unique from urban areas, including a lack of mailboxes.  

The tribal governments are specifically interested in protecting three key provisions granted by AB4, which lawmakers recently approved to bring changes to voting, including the ability to collect and deliver ballots on behalf of someone else, the distinction that a ballot with an unclear postmark will be accepted so long as it received within three days of Nov. 3 and mechanisms for tribes to request and receive early on-reservation polling locations. 

“These efforts directly threaten proposed tribal intervenors’ rights and the ability of Native Americans in Nevada to cast their ballots and have those ballots count,” attorneys wrote in the brief filed Friday.

The tribes’ request to intervene comes on the heels of the Trump campaign’s move to narrow the scope of the lawsuit to focus on the provision that allows ballots with unclear postmarks to be accepted up to three days after Election Day. The campaign’s initial challenge, filed in early August, requested a federal court to block the law entirely, citing constitutional issues. 

Attorneys for the tribes explained that while mail-in voting has created new obstacles for tribal members to cast votes, they understand the need for the shift as members are 3 and 1/2 times more likely to be infected by COVID-19 than their white counterparts. 

Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske consented to the motion to intervene, but the Trump campaign opposed it. The tribes requested an expedited review, citing a time-sensitive case with the election only weeks away. 

Native Americans account for 1.7 percent of the state population, with more than 52,000 people who identify as such. 

But despite the relatively high number of eligible voters, a 2018 National Congress of American Indians report shows the turnout rate for registered American Indian and Alaskan Native voters is between one to 10 percentage points lower than the turnout rates for other racial and ethnic groups. 

Obstacles to the ballot box 

Native American populations have long faced obstacles in exercising their right to vote, which wasn’t granted by every state in the U.S. until 1962. Since then, other barriers have continued to suppress voter turnout.

And while the mail-in voting process may provide an easier option to vote for some Nevadans, it poses major obstacles for tribal communities. 

“Geographic isolation, significant distance from post offices, limited rural post office hours, lack of transportation options, lack of Internet access, and other socio-economic factors, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, make it very difficult for Walker River Paiute and Pyramid Lake members to cast their ballots by mail,” states the tribes’ motion. 

Many tribal members living on reservations do not have mailboxes and don’t receive residential mail delivery. Only 35 percent of reservations and colonies in the state have a home mail service. 

Neither the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe nor the Walker River Paiute Tribe had ballot drop boxes located on the reservations for the 2020 primary election in June. 

Nine of the 14 reservations and colonies in the state lack a post office within jurisdictional boundaries. While most of the 2,500 tribal members between the two tribes receive and drop mail at the nearest post office, access to post offices is limited for rural tribal communities. The average distance from a reservation or colony to a postal office with regular business hours is 54 miles — more than 100 miles round-trip. 

Additionally, many tribal members lack access to a car, or must spend more money on gas in order to drive the longer distances between county seats and reservations, which is an average distance of 67 miles. The Goshute reservation is the farthest in the state from a county seat, which is 135 miles from Ely in White Pine County. 

Given the obstacles tribal members must overcome in order to reach the ballot box, the Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribes aim to ensure the provisions that help their community members vote will be protected amid Trump’s legal threat. 

Often called “ballot collection,” or “ballot harvesting” by conservative leaders, a provision of AB4 that allows individuals to turn in ballots for others is a priority for tribal members who are limited in their access to post offices or vehicles. 

“In the short term, A.B. 4 provides much needed relief to Native Americans by suspending the ballot assistance bans in times of emergency, allowing non-family members, such as individuals, political parties, community organizers, and other groups like the Walker River Paiute Community Health Representatives, to safely return a ballot for one another in the upcoming election,” states the tribes’ motion. 

The tribes’ attorneys also say that the provision to accept ballots with unclear postmarks received within three days after Election Day more directly affects Native American voters because of the distance to post offices and longer routes for Native American ballots to reach county seats. 
Finally, AB4 maintains tribes’ rights to request polling locations on reservations, which Nevada tribes achieved through a lawsuit against the secretary of state in 2016.

Donald J. Trump For Preside... by Jazmin

With public meetings canceled, federal, state agencies offer varying guidances for weighing in on environmental issues

In late March, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation requesting that the agency delay a public comment period for a controversial and complicated project to do maintenance on the Truckee Canal, a manmade diversion off the Truckee River. 

In the letter, the tribe asked to reschedule public workshops and government-to-goverment consultation with the agency, responsible for managing dams and diversions across the West.

But the agency denied the request.

In a letter responding to the tribe, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Area Manager, Terri Edwards, declined to push back the April 20 public comment period. She noted that the federal agency had instead created an opportunity for virtual public comment to weigh in on an environmental analysis for the Truckee Canal project and offered to conduct a consultation remotely.

“We have told Reclamation numerous times since that letter that we don’t think that a video conference or a telephone conference with the council would suffice under their obligation to hold government-to-government consultation,” said Chris Mixson, an attorney for the tribe.

The tribe was hardly the only party that objected to the bureau’s decision. Officials with the City of Fernley also wanted Reclamation to push back the comment deadline due to the measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19: limiting public meetings and encouraging residents to stay at home. When Reclamation denied the requests, Fernley sued in federal court.

“Non-essential governmental and legal proceedings of all types have been placed on hold, and deadlines have been tolled,” lawyers for Fernley wrote on April 9. “Despite this, and the fact other federal agencies have already granted COVID-19 extensions for public comment periods, Reclamation denied numerous requests to extend its April 20, 2020, deadline…”

The lawsuit highlights an issue that has frustrated everyone from local municipalities to tribes and environmental groups. What should state and federal agencies, responsible for collecting public comments on major decisions, do when they can no longer convene the public in person? Even if the public can comment online, is it a sufficient alternative during a public health crisis?

State and federal agencies have offered mixed messages on how they intend to move forward. But in most cases, agencies are approaching the issue on a case-by-case basis. 

The public comment process is a key part of the process for analyzing the environmental impacts of actions, from permitting mines to leasing oil and gas, on federal land. With federal land comprising about 85 percent of the state, many of these decisions are closely watched.

“Public comment periods are an incredibly important tool for ensuring that the public has a role in making federal decisions with significant environmental, economic, and cultural impacts,”Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen wrote to the Department of Interior on April 3. 

In the letter, the senators requested that the agency, which includes the Bureau of Reclamation, extend open public comment periods indefinitely and postpone future public comment periods.

But the department did not issue any overarching policy. Instead, 10 days later, it offered guidance for bureaus within the department, including on virtual public comment meetings. 

As Reclamation moves forward with the canal project, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages about 65 percent of the state’s land, is looking at it on a “case-by-case basis.”

“Our actions, such as comment periods and lease sales, are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis and adjustments are being made to ensure we are allowing for appropriate public input, while protecting the health and safety of the public and our employees,” said Chris Rose, a spokesman for the state office, noting that the BLM was taking comment through mail or email. 

Agencies often have to walk a fine line. If they do not provide ample opportunity for the public to  comment on governmental action and permitting, they could face litigation to undo a decision.

And the issues are not only on the federal level. 

On April 10, three groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Great Basin Resource Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity — wrote to Gov. Steve Sisolak asking the governor to cease public comment periods for mines and suspend permitting during the COVID-19 process. 

“Amid this global crisis, permitting mines has continued unhindered despite the fact that the public can not be reasonably expected to engage in ongoing public comment periods,” the groups wrote in a letter. “Many who would normally engage in commenting are in crisis as infection rates rise, and we reach record levels of unemployment.”

In the letter, the groups identified another issue that hampers the ability of groups, especially in rural communities, to weigh in on governmental decisions: limited access to the internet. 

Fernley raised a similar issue in its lawsuit over public comment for the Truckee Canal project. It argued that domestic well owners, with limited access to the internet, might be shut out from the process. But the agency argued in court filings that in-person meetings were not mandatory. 

And on Friday, federal District Court Judge Miranda Du agreed.

Du dismissed the case and wrote in her order that “contrary to Fernley’s argument, the duties it seeks to impose on Reclamation are discretionary, rather than mandatory.”